Poor Ben Stiller, reduced yet again to playing Owen Wilson’s straight man. This time, in Night at the Museum, Stiller, as Larry Daley, an unemployed divorced father who takes a job as a night guard at New York’s Museum of Natural History, is upstaged by an uncredited Wilson, who plays an Old West cowboy. What’s worse for Stiller is that Wilson’s character is a miniature in one the museum’s exhibits, all of which magically come to life after dark. But then Stiller is the straight man for a rather clever capuchin monkey as well.
The slenderest of plots, combined with a main character who is nothing more than a foil for museum creatures and set-pieces, would not seem a promising basis for a successful film. Yet Night at the Museum manages to entertain, partly because of its consistently humorous slapstick, but mostly because of its imaginative premise. Who hasn’t pondered the prospect of being locked in a museum at night and having the creatures come to life?
The exhibits include a T-Rex that likes to play fetch, pre-historic humans desperately seeking the discovery of fire, and stampeding African animals. The film also features a remarkably subdued Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, who becomes Stiller’s counselor in manliness: “Some men are born great; other men have greatness thrust upon them.”
Larry’s encounter with greatness is made possible by the imminent retirement of three aging night-shift security guards, two of whom are played by Dick van Dyke and a pugnacious Mickey Rooney. Having selected Larry as their sole replacement, they leave him alone in the museum with a list of duties and a mysterious admonition, “Don’t let anything in or out.” It turns out that the guards harbor a secret: an Egyptian tablet that contains magical powers that bring all the denizens of the museum to life after dark. That is about the best the film can do in the way of plot explanations. Don’t ask yourself, for example, how it is that after a night of mayhem through the entire museum, the only thing out of place is the Roman general on whom Wilson’s cowboy has played a prank.
After his initial failures at controlling the rowdy nocturnal crowd, Larry spends some time studying the ancient civilizations and species featured in the museum. But don’t let that get your hopes up for historical accuracy. Perhaps with Apocalypto in mind, the display of Mayan civilization remains locked up for safety reasons, the only society thus segregated.
The human drama here is rather flat. It begins with a Hollywood standby, the obligatory broken home with a responsible mother, newly engaged, and a father (Stiller’s Larry Daley) with lots of dreamy schemes but little to show in the way of career success. The film plays off the child’s fantasy about a mostly absent parent, a failure in the adult world, who nonetheless harbors a secret greatness. But the scripting of the relationship between Larry and his son Nick is completely vacuous and the resolution of the relationship is about as predictable as they come.
Deprived by the script of any complexity of character, Stiller is quite effective as a foil for the action sequences, as a perplexed register of fantastic events, and, inevitably, as the straight man to Wilson’s more expressive humor. Whether leading his cowboys in a turf war against the adjacent Roman army or in his sardonic expression of “impotent rage” over his bullet-less gun or in his verbal repartee with the human Larry, whom he mockingly calls “Gigantor,” Wilson steals the show and makes the whole thing worth watching.
– Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.